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Yōga Collage

Yōga - History and Concepts

Started: 1876
Ended: 1955
Yōga Timeline

Beginnings of Yōga

Early Contact with the West

This image depicts an illustration by Odano Naotake for the <i>Kaitai Shinso</i> (Illustrations for a European anatomy textbook translated into Japanese) (1774).

The earliest introduction of foreign religious paintings and imagery to Japan came via Christian missionaries with the arrival of the Portugese in 1543. At the time Japanese artists copied and imitated the works, though that interest declined in the following Edo period when Japan cut off all contact with the outside world. Only one port remained open, allowing for limited trade with China and the Netherlands. It was through this channel that Japanese artists discovered perspective by studying Dutch anatomical and scientific textbooks. As a result, some of them incorporated the technique into their own work, like Utagawa Toyoharu in his Perspective Pictures of Places in Japan (c. 1772-1781). Elements of this new perspective began influencing the dominant art style of the time, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, particularly as seen in the work of Katsushika Hokusai.

Commodore Perry

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy arrived with a fleet of warships with the express purpose of forcing Japan out of its two centuries long isolationist stance and into an open policy. The powerful display of firepower caused a crisis in the Japanese national consciousness. Aware of the West's superior technology, the government spurred various initiatives to explore Western science and art so that Japan might become an equal of the West. Accordingly, the Bansho Shirabesho, (Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books) was founded in 1857 in order to translate foreign books into Japanese.

The artist Kawakami Togai was put in charge of a section devoted to the study of Western art, where, instructed to learn Western art techniques, he taught himself linear perspective and explored oil painting. The artist Takahashi Yuichi became his student and assistant. Together, the two men developed a system for drawing with pencil that was adopted in all Japanese schools for over a decade, replacing traditional brush and ink.

After the Meiji Restoration government gained power in 1868, Togai started his own private art school teaching Western painting and subsequently published his A Guide to Western Style Painting (1871).

Takahashi Yuichi

Takahashi Yuichi's <i>Self-Portrait with Topknot</i> (1866-1867) dates from the time the artist was studying Western style painting with Charles Wirgman.

Takahashi Yuichi is considered to be the first true Yōga painter, not only mastering the technique, but also employing its aesthetic. He first encountered Western art in the form of Dutch lithographs while he was studying art in the Kanō school, and found in the works a realism and directness that led him to oil painting. He felt that Japanese art was stagnant, its ukiyo-e "bent on vulgarity and insignificance," and the Nanga traditional style in homage to Chinese culture, too esoteric. Following his work with Togai at the Bansho Shirabesho, he went to Yokohama in 1867 to study with Charles Wirgman, a British cartoonist and artist, who was so impressed with Takahashi's work he supported the young artist's exhibition at the 1867 Paris World Exhibition.

Meiji Restoration Government and the Kobu Bijutsu Gakko

The Meiji Restoration government formally took power in 1868, headed by the Emperor Meiji. Driven by the understanding that the former Edo government had been destabilized by the arrival of Western influence, the government's fundamental policies involved the modernization of Japan. These initiatives also extended to art.

Antonio Fontanesi's <i>Alla Fontana</i> (At the Fountain) (1867-1969) depicts a rural scene in the Barbizon style.

Anxious to compete with the West, the Meiji government followed the Western model of establishing art academies and technical schools by creating the first official art school in 1876 with the opening of the Kobo Bijutsu Gakko (Technical Fine Arts School). The government recruited three Italians, Vincent Raqusa to teach sculpture, Giovanni Cappelletti for general preparatory courses, and Antonio Fontanesi to teach drawing. Antonio Fontanesi, a painter influenced by the French Barbizon School, taught oil painting, en plein air (painting outdoors), drawing or painting from a live model, anatomical studies, perspective, and the use of pastel, charcoal, and crayon.

As a result of his early leadership in Western painting, Takahashi Yuichi was also appointed by the Meiji government as an art professor at the Kobubijutsu Gakkō (Technical Fine Arts School) in Tokyo, where he worked with Fontanesi in promoting Western art. Yuichi argued that the revival of Japanese art via Western styles would also help create a modern sense of Japanese national identity, saying, "If the virtues of its heroes, saints, and sages, were disseminated by portraits drawn from living models, if in times of peace the national folk dances and music were illustrated and if the armies and battles were depicted during the war, so that people even thousands of miles away could visualize what happened."

Charles Wirgman

A sketch from Charles Wirgman's <i>A Sketch Book of Japan</i> (C. 1884), depicting an everyday work scene in a household, exemplifies Western drawing techniques - shading, perspective, and naturalistic detail - which he taught in his art lessons.

The British artist Charles Wirgman made a noted impact on the development of Yōga as he taught Western art techniques to a number of students, including Takakashi Yuishi and Hosui Yamamoto. Wirgman, working for the Illustrated London News, came to Japan in 1861 and settled in Yokohama for the rest of his life. He was a noted cartoonist and illustrator and in 1862 launched the first Japanese magazine, Japan Punch, a humorous and satirical monthly publication meant for foreigners living in Japan. Wirgman not only taught Western art but also was an important bridge between Japan and Europe, helping to promote the works of Japanese artists in France and creating intercultural connections that emphasized European art studies. As a result, artists from the following generations, such as Kuroda Seiki, Yorozu Tetsugoro, and Yūzō Saeki, would go to Paris for extended periods of study.

The Barbizon School and Kuroda Seiki

In 1883, Kuroda Seiki went to Paris where he studied with Raphael Collin, a French artist whose works, shown at the Paris Salon, had begun to achieve success for their Academic styles. Collin also taught other Japanese artists like Fuji Masazo and Asai Chū. While the era was marked by the emergence of Impressionism, Collin's style was more influenced by Neoclassical Academic painting and by the Naturalism of the Barbizon School, and by Jules Bastien-Lepage, who was a close friend of Collin.

Kuroda Seiki's <i>Grez</i> (<i>Withered Field</i>) (c. 1891) is an example of his French <i>plein-air</i>, though in its choice of subject matter, the empty field as a broad area of varying color, it also exemplified a Japanese sensibility.

Accordingly, while Kuroda and other Japanese artists who studied with Collin were influenced by Impressionism's emphasis on light and color, they did not adopt the vigorous brushwork or technique of that movement, but sought to bring more color into naturalistic treatments. While studying with Collin, Kuroda began visiting Grez-sur-Loing, a village outside of Paris that had become a sort of informal artist's colony, and creating plein-air paintings, of which his Grez (Withered Field), c.1891, was a noted example.

Meiji Bijutsukai (Meiji Fine Arts Society), 1889

By the 1880s the pendulum between Japanese style painting and Western style painting, both seen as competing ways of creating an international and national artistic identity, had swung away from Yōga to favor Nihonga art. Nihonga art originally arose as a rejection of the adoption of Western techniques, and as a preservation measure to honor and respect traditional Japanese styles and aesthetics while also forwarding them into a more modern sensibility. As a result of this backlash, the Technical Fine Arts School closed in 1883. This shift also reflected the views of the Meiji government, then responding to an increased anti-Westernism in Japanese society. In response to the closing of official venues, Yōga artists established the Meiji Bijutsukai (Meiji Fine Arts Society) in Tokyo in 1889 to continue to promote the teaching of Western painting.

Kuroda Seiki's <i>Self-Portrait</i> (1893) shows the artist upon his return to Japan, in traditional dress, in a work that combines oil painting with the gold foil background of more traditional Japanese art.

Returning from France in 1893, Kuroda Seiki joined the Society where he played a leading role. He helped revive the movement by bringing new techniques and subject matter into the fold, particularly plein-air painting and the nude. As a result, by 1896 a department devoted to Yōga was again added to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, and the movement was reconsidered a viable part of Japanese art.


In 1907 the Bunten, the official annual art show, was established by the Ministry of Education to provide a venue for creating a sense of national artistic identity. Japan had been victorious in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904-1905 and, having become recognized as an international power, the government saw art as another way to consolidate that recognition on an international stage. Of equal importance to creating a sense of national identity was creating a public awareness of Japanese art. Previously in Japan, art had been something that people would have to travel to temples to view. Only the ukiyo-e work of the Edo Period had really reached a public audience. The Bunten showed art in three categories: Yōga, Nihonga, and sculpture. Each category was presided over and judged by representatives of each type of art.

While the Bunten did create a public audience for art, evidenced by the 250,000 people in attendance, many artists came to feel that the official show was both too politicized and conservative. In 1912, Nihonga artists protested, resulting in the creation of two sections for Nihonga, the conservative Ikka (First Section) and the progressive Nika (Second Section). In reaction to this, Yōga artists Yamashita Shintarô, Ishii Hakutei, and others established the Nikakai, or Second Section Association, in 1914. The annual show, competing with the Bunten showed only work by independent and avant-garde artists, and is still a noted venue today.

Yōga: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

The Nude

The nude had never really been a subject for Japanese art, as it had in the West. Japanese artists had sometimes depicted nude women in communal bathing scenes but the emphasis was upon the ordinary activity, distinctively non-eroticized. Even in ukiyo-e's shunga (pictures of spring) works that depicted sexual activity, the couples were always portrayed clothed to indicate their social role and caste, exposing only their unusually exaggerated genitalia. Just as shunga originally shocked Western audiences, the Western tradition of the nude as an aesthetic or erotic object shocked the Japanese. Scholar Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote in 1890, "The nude is seen in Japan but not looked at." Accordingly, the first paintings by Japanese artists to depict Japanese women in the tradition of the Western nude were highly controversial. Kuroda Seiki showed the first noted Japanese nude, his Morning Toilette (1895), at the 4th National Industrial Exhibition in 1895.

Many critics were outraged and agreed with the title of a subsequent article "Keep Nude Paintings a Secret," as the author Miyako Shinbun went on to say, "...when it comes to displaying it in front of the general public, it is absolutely disgraceful. Such artists are devoted to their own theory of art and have forgotten their influence on social customs and manners."

Kuroda, however, continued advocating for the nude and implicitly connected the genre to Japan's attaining international artistic stature, saying, "I cannot think of any reason to abandon nude painting. There is nothing wrong with the international standard of aesthetics. It is actually necessary and should be promoted for the sake of the future of Japanese art." Kuroda's work and teaching influenced many subsequent artists, including Sotaro Yasu, Narashige Koide, Ryuzaburo Umehara, and Tetsugoro Yorozu. The genre of the nude was particularly important in the development of subsequent avant-garde movements.

Fauvist Expressionism

An early and dominant avant-garde strain of Yōga in Japan combined Fauvism's intense and sometimes garish color palette with Expressionism. Fauvism had a noted influence on a number of Yōga painters, and the scholar Kawakita explained, "the subsequent trend through postimpressionism to fauvism represented in many ways the rebirth of the freedom that had been seen in the Nanga and Maruyama-Shijo styles of Japanese painting. To Japanese eyes, in short, it required nothing of the 'wild beast' to appreciate the fauves. On the contrary, it was like coming home again. In the fauvist medium the Japanese artist could simply let his Japanese self go."

The leader of the avant-garde in Yōga painting was Yorozu Tetsugoro, whose Nude Beauty (1912) first introduced Fauvism to Japanese artists. In his evolving artistic idiom, he followed with his Self-Portrait with Red Eyes (1912-1913) where the Fauvist palette had been employed in an expressionistic work. The Fauvist palette continued to be a dominant trend in Japanese art, as seen in works like Umehara Ryûzaburô's Nude (1932) or Nude with Fans (1938), which made him one of the most successful painters of his era. Other Japanese artists combined Fauvist colors with other styles, as seen in Tarō Okamoro's Cubist Mahiru no kao (Face in Midday) (1948).


Although at the time Cubism was a leading movement in Europe, only a few Japanese painters were under its influence. Yorozu Tetsugoro encountered the movement when he was living in Paris, and his Leaning Woman (1917), the first noted Cubist Japanese work, introduced the movement to Japan. Nonetheless, Tetsugoro's painting showed a Japanese emphasis on line more than refracting angles, and in the 1920's, Cubism was more accurately one of many sources of inspiration than a distinctive trend. In the following generation, Tarō Okamoto, a Yōga painter who had studied at the Tokyo Fine Arts School, became an important bridge between abstract art, Cubism, and Surrealism. Moving to Paris in 1930, he was part of the Abstraction-Création group from 1933-1937. While in Paris, he was influenced by Pablo Picasso's work, and in the period following World War II, his works like Mahiru no kao (Face in Midday), (1948) helped spark a new interest in Cubism.

Only in the 1950s, following a 1951 retrospective of Picasso's work in Tokyo and Osaka, did Cubism become a major trend in Japanese art. Picasso's politically themed work was of great interest to post-war Japanese artists like Taro Okamoto, Masaaki Yamada, and Yamamoto Keisuke. They were driven to respond to the horrors of World War II, including the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both Keisuke's Hiroshima (1948) and Mikami Makoto's Night (1949) were deeply influenced by Picasso's Guernica. As art historian Inhye wrote, "Picasso made many artists in Asia think about and render their way of life as an artist, encouraging participation in and response to political issues."


Surrealism began in Japan in the late 1920s as a literary movement. The first Japanese surrealist poetry magazine was launched in 1927 and the leading Japanese Surrealist poet, Nishiwaki Junzaburō, returned from Europe in 1928. Art soon followed, and Kara Harue, Abe Kongo, and Tōgō Seiji exhibited Surrealist works at the 1929 Nikakai exhibition. Takiguchi Shūzō, a poet and art critic, who translated André Breton's La Surréalisme et la peinture in 1930, which had a noted impact on the Japanese art world, believed that Surrealism "has permeated our daily lives since the time of our ancestors." He saw the Japanese traditions of Zen, haiku, and other Japanese art forms as reflections of an intrinsic Surrealist spirit in Japanese art.

Returning to Japan from his art studies in Paris in 1931, the Surrealist Fukuzawa Ichirō gave further impetus to the movement. In that same year, a noted exhibition of Surrealist works that included Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, and many others toured Japan. As a result, clubs and societies devoted to the movement formed throughout the country. Also in 1931, a photographic exhibition of German photographers, a number of them Surrealists, toured Japan and a New Photography movement was launched led by Yamamoto Kansuke, Hirai Terushich, and Nakayama Iwata, involving photographers in Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya, and Tokyo. Taiguichi Shūzō's 1937 Surrealism Overseas exhibition further consolidated the movement, as he said, "Surrealism should not be considered just another Western modernism but a vital force that could revive the creative and artistic force of Japan."

For many artists Surrealism allowed the development of an individual artistic sensibility, increasingly under pressure from rising nationalism. As art historian Gabriel Richard Ritter wrote, "surrealism offered an escape from the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of wartime Japan, as well as a method to critique reality and society. Surrealism in Japan can be viewed as both a refuge and an anti-establishment practice to explore artistic subjectivity while resisting the ideological pressures of the state." By 1941, the government began using "thought police" to keep surveillance upon and arrest artists whose art was counter to national interests. Nonetheless, Surrealism continued to be an active movement in Japan, often fusing with other movements in terms of style.


Reportage began among Japanese artists following World War II, and reflected a strong sense of social protest and commentary. Japan was occupied by the United States military following the war, and artists wanted to expose the oppression of the occupation, the effect of the war upon Japan, and Japan's own culpability in the horrors of World War II. Reportage used a style that varied between elements of Social Realism and Surrealist imagery. Nakamura Hiroshi's work exemplified the social realist approach in works like Sunagawa #5 (1955) that also drew upon Japanese graphic and woodblock styles. Nakamura described his intent, "In the early 1950s, socialist realism was spreading throughout the world as an art movement and many art students were influenced by it... We were encouraged to persuade the viewer." The signature work of the Reportage movement became Yamashita Kikuji's The Tale of Akebono Village (1952) with its surrealist imagery depicting a violent scene in a rural village in the Yamanashi prefecture.

By the mid-1950s Reportage became deeply linked to protest art. When the United States conducted thermonuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, Tatsuo's 10,000 Count (1954) protested with an image showing the irradiated catch of a Japanese fishing boat. Other artists associated with the movement were Nakamura Hiroshi, Yamashita Kikuji, and Ishii Shigeo, and their protest work continued into the 1960s.

Later Developments - After Yōga

Yōga art based upon Western techniques, styles, and motifs is still taught in contemporary Japanese art departments, and innumerable artists deploy its strategies in their work. Nonetheless, as a distinctive category, defined by oil painting, Yōga declined by the mid-1950s, as Tokyo was transformed into an international art center, principally known for its New Avant-Garde. The earlier avant-garde Yōga artists, who had worked in Surrealism, Reportage, or Cubism, had an inspirational influence upon the New Avant-Garde, and those artists who were still working like Okamoto Taro and Nakamura Hiroshi became leaders in the Tokyo art world. Working across a wide range of media, including video, graphic design, sculpture, and painting, artists like Ay-O, Shioni Mieko, Tetsumi Kudo, and Yoko Ono both initiated and participated in international art movements. Yōga painters associated with Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Fluxus, Pop art, or Neo Dada, became part of the global art movement, rather than confined to a specifically Japanese category of Western style art. Nihonga artists in Japan were also influenced by the avant-garde Yōga artists and began to incorporate new materials, like acrylic paint, new contemporary motifs, and Western-derived influences into their work, and as a result, the distinction between Nihonga and Yōga became increasingly blurred. The major Yōga movements like Surrealism continue to attract artists of later generations, as seen in the works of Tesuyda Ishida such as his Prisoner (c. 1999) showing his head as a child emerging from the side of a school that confined him. Reportage has recently seen a revival of interest, as shown in Linda Hoaglund's acclaimed documentary ANPO: Art X War (2010), focusing on the artists of the movement.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Yōga Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 25 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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